Fifty years ago, my maternal grandfather uprooted his family and headed west in search of a better life. My grandmother hated the idea of living in the scorching desert, but understood that Arizona was a place where they could build a future for their children that was unparalleled elsewhere. They arrived in Phoenix at a time that it was budding with economic opportunity -- largely thanks to migrants from Mexico who were actively engaged in building a vibrant multicultural community.
I grew up in the Arizona of the eighties as a first-generation Phoenician. Although we are a family of mostly European descent, the state's unique Mexican history and heritage was a part of our everyday lives. I remember grinding masa for homemade tamales with friends, learning Spanish, running horses down old Apache trails, and crossing the border to spend time with Sonoran neighbors. Our histories were intrinsically tied to one another -- and I proudly carried that identity with me when I left the state to pursue my own work.
But today I couldn't be more ashamed of where I am from. The racist immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer more or less turns my childhood home into a xenophobic police state.
The state is long overdue to recognize the Mexican peoples' central role in its very existence and defend their right to remain a vital part of it. (Arizona was part of Mexico until taken by the United States as war loot in 1848.) Instead, Arizona lawmakers have overwhelmingly decided to racially profile and criminalize them -- including those who have committed no crime. This could ultimately amount to rounding up thousands of people and sending them packing to Mexico.
Arizona has now in large part become a desert playground for the white and wealthy built on the backs of hardworking Mexicans. The horse trails of my youth have been replaced with Prada outlets and golf courses. While "snowbirds" from the Midwest build lavish second homes, countless Mexicans lose their lives each day attempting to cross the treacherous passes of the heavily militarized border.
For those of us who haven't walked in the shoes of undocumented migrants, it's high time we look at the root causes of what drives many of them to risk their lives braving the border crossing. Trade agreements like NAFTA have upset the entire Mexican economy by dumping cheap agricultural products on local markets and depriving farmers and small-scale producers of their livelihood. One example is corn production, where U.S. agribusiness seized Mexico's most important subsistence crop and left farmers with few options. Real free trade would also allow for labor swaps and freedom of movement for people -- not just for goods and services.
After being displaced from their agricultural lands, many people have traveled north to work in the maquilas of the border towns. These U.S. owned sweatshops located along the U.S.-Mexican border are in squalid condition, demand long hours, offer little compensation, and have about an 80% turnover rate. When workers are unable to meet the physical challenges or support their families on such meager pay, often the only viable option is to attempt the journey to the U.S. It's not much different from Irish immigration during the potato famine or the arrival of Italian peasant farmers escaping a bad Sicilian economy. For that matter, it's not much different from my grandfather's story.
Arizona's latest drama again highlights the need for comprehensive immigration reform -- one that is accompanied by trade reform and a just foreign policy that respects the rights of all parties involved. The people of Arizona deserve better. At the end of the day, let's not forget that we are almost all immigrants.